Things we did not get answers to in 2018
Another year has passed without the full implementation of the long-promised and long-awaited Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
The Minnis administration says it is busy putting in place the necessary systems to support the legislation and remains committed to transparency and accountability.
We hope that 2019 is finally the year for the act to be brought into force. Bahamians have waited long enough for it.
Of course, the government does not need an act to be forthcoming in its dealings. It can provide access to public information now.
In 2018, there were numerous pronouncements made about what the government will do. But questions linger on various issues. Some of those questions, however, have nothing to do with the government. In some instances, we did not get answers to questions we put directly to the police.
In some cases, authorities get distracted by dealing with other issues they choose to prioritize and neglect to keep their commitments to providing answers. In other cases, we suspect, they depend on the media and the electorate to forget their pledges.
They sometimes provide distractions, hoping we all move on to other things.
As the curtains fell on 2018 a few weeks ago, we could not help but wonder what became of various matters that once dominated headlines and drew the attention of many. We still await answers on a variety of issues.
These are only a few of them.
In August, Minister of Public Works Desmond Bannister got himself into an unfortunate public spat with former members of the board of Bahamas Power and Light (BPL), embarrassing himself in the process.
Bannister made unfortunate and unsubstantiated claims against several of those former board members after the board was suddenly disbanded.
The board was made up of Darnell Osborne, who was the executive chairperson, Nick Dean, Nicola Thompson, Patrick Rollins, Ferron Bethel and BPL CEO Whitney Heastie.
The minister claimed the relationships within the board had broken down and the board locked horns on almost every issue. He claimed this was at great cost to BPL.
Bannister also alleged that Osborne submitted bills to BPL for her makeup to be done, and also made the board pay for a security system at her home.
Osborne, Dean and Thompson fired back at the minister, claiming that “political interference” and a “continuous disrespect” toward the executive chairperson were at the root of the former board’s dysfunction.
The matter escalated publicly becoming nastier by the day.
Seeking to quell the tensions, Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis promised to probe the issues and make a full report to the public.
“I have met this morning with the past BPL board members,” Minnis said on August 22.
“I had a very good meeting with them and I have informed them in light of what has been transpiring that the government will initiate a proper investigation into the BPL saga and when we complete that investigation that will be made readily available to you.”
We suspected at the time that Minnis was not serious about a probe, but merely wanted to see the embarrassing matter out of the headlines.
He repeatedly claimed that an investigation into the issues will still happen, but at year’s end, we had no idea whether the probe ever started.
So much for transparency.
In addition to not knowing whether the promised probe into the BPL saga ever started, we also do not know months after several fires broke out at BPL plants the causes of those fires.
The first fire erupted around 10:30 p.m. on September 7 and destroyed a generator, prompting BPL to load shed throughout New Providence.
Firefighters responded to reports of a second fire on September 9 around 10 p.m.
Not long after, firefighters rushed to BPL’s Clifton Pier power plant yet again to put out another blaze.
Those three fires occurred in the same area, according to officials.
While the first fire destroyed a generator at the plant, BPL said the second and third fires were minor and no additional damage was caused as a result.
There was a fourth fire on Saturday, September 15 around 9 p.m. at a distribution center at BPL’s Blue Hill power plant, which resulted in parts of New Providence being left without electricity for more than 12 hours.
Questions remain about how those fires were caused.
At his annual press conference last week, those questions were put to Commissioner of Police Anthony Ferguson, but again, there were no clear answers.
Director of Fire Services Chief Superintendent Walter Evans has repeatedly assured that the information will be made public.
We are still waiting.
The missing Oban file
Last April, we reported that police were investigating the disappearance of a file on the controversial Oban Energies project from the Bahamas Environment, Science and Technology (BEST) Commission.
Confirmation of the missing file probe was the latest twist in what was a multi-layered and complex saga that drew national attention for many weeks. It was unclear when the discovery of the missing file was made.
BEST is charged with the review of environmental impact assessments (EIA) and environmental management plans (EMP) for development projects within The Bahamas. It was transferred to the Office of the Prime Minister several months after the general election.
The government’s signing of the deal with Oban Energies for the $5.5 billion oil refinery and storage project in Grand Bahama in the absence of an EIA had been among the most controversial elements of this matter.
In March, Minnis admitted that the government made a series of missteps regarding the deal in its haste to boost the economy of Grand Bahama and as a result ordered a subcommittee and technical advisory group to examine the agreement in hopes of renegotiation.
Minister of Labour Dion Foulkes, who chairs that subcommittee, recently indicated the government hopes to negotiate a substantially new deal.
Last week, the police commissioner was asked about the status of the missing file investigation. He said the matter was still being investigated.
“I’m not in the position to give you any more details on it, other than to say that it is still being investigated,” Ferguson said.
Following the initial report of the missing file, police remained tight-lipped on the matter.
The contents of the file were not revealed.
Who did not disclose
Although Minnis came to office promising to name and shame parliamentarians who violated the Public Disclosure Act, there has been no reporting on who has failed to disclose.
A month after the Free National Movement came to office, the prime minister gave parliamentarians who were sitting in Parliament in the last term who did not file their financial disclosures by March 1, 2017 three weeks in which to file or he “is going to turn that file with their names over to the attorney general and instruct him to do what the law prescribes”.
The Public Disclosure Act mandates members of Parliament, senators, senior public officers and public appointees to declare their assets, income and liabilities as of December 31 of each year.
The original deadline for public disclosure was March 1 but the date was changed after there were reportedly logistical challenges in issuing letters to some parliamentarians.
Public Disclosure Commission Chairman Myles Laroda had said at least three sitting parliamentarians did not comply by the March 31 deadline. Months have passed since an update has been given to the media.
An update on this matter is past due, assuming the prime minister was serious in ensuring those who violated the Public Disclosure Act are dealt with under the law.
The Public Disclosure Act empowers both the prime minister and the leader of the opposition to “authorize the furnishing of any information furnished to him by the [Public Disclosure] Commission to the attorney general or the commissioner of police”.
The government tabled the Integrity Commission Bill in 2017, which would establish a comprehensive anti-corruption body and legislate a code of conduct for people in public life. The new bill would also impose a fine and possible imprisonment on parliamentarians who fail to disclose their assets.
However, more than a year after that bill was brought, it remains on the legislative back burner. The bill would repeal the Public Disclosure Act.
Travel expenses for ministers
In opposition, FNM members repeatedly lambasted the Christie administration for what they viewed as excessive travel, which they claimed was a monumental waste of taxpayer dollars.
Upon coming to office, Prime Minister Minnis committed to being accountable on this and other issues.
In 2017, Anthony Newbold, the prime minister’s press secretary, said the government was looking into the travel expenses of government officials under the former administration with a view to providing a report on it.
Like the administration before it, the Minnis administration is known for making certain pronouncements that sound good at the time they are made, but they often never materialize.
Following a three-day trip to Texas last January, Minnis said he has nothing to hide and every penny his government spends on travel will be accounted for.
“There is a difference between spending and no results and spending and results,” the prime minister said.
“Every penny we spend we will account. I have a minister of finance who doesn’t allow us to spend one dime without being results oriented.”
Minnis later reported in Parliament that his Texas trip cost taxpayers $37,000.
His government, however, failed to provide the full reporting on ministers’ travels since coming to office and it failed to meet its odd commitment to report on how much the PLP government spent on travel.
Once again, it was more hot air from our government.
Why did Reece Chipman get fired?
Last March, Minnis dropped the axe on Reece Chipman, the Centreville MP who served as chairman of the Antiquities, Monuments and Museums Corporation (AMMC).
But the prime minister refused to explain to the public why he fired Chipman as chairman.
Chipman, who was called into a meeting with the prime minister and other senior officials, said the prime minister told him that the reason he was requesting his resignation was that he (Chipman) was not getting along with certain people at the corporation, which is responsible for the management of the country’s heritage sites and the preservation of its historical assets for future generations of Bahamians.
Chipman accused Minnis of ignoring his concerns about the AMMC operating outside the law. The MP also said he wouldn’t support “political prostitutes in our system”.
Asked whether he intended to explain to the Bahamian people why he fired Chipman, Minnis said, “I don’t think some details I would give you.
“No. Some details I would not give to you, but the records will always be there so that whichever government comes behind, the records are always there.”
Minnis also reminded that he was elected to “root out corruption”.
That was an unfortunate innuendo that understandably did not sit well with Chipman.
Despite Minnis’ innuendo, whether intentional or not, there were no allegations of financial impropriety as it relates to Chipman.
At the time, we opined that the prime minister, in fairness to Chipman, ought to make that clear to the public. Of course, Minnis never did.
Chipman said in his letter to the prime minister: “We campaigned against a system that was not working for our children and the next generation of Bahamians. We did not campaign on much of the same. Centreville will continue to fight for change for our people, and Centreville hopes you endeavor to do the same.”
We never got the full story on why Minnis fired Chipman.
PM’s corruption figure
Last April, the prime minister declared that The Bahamas is losing $500 million annually to corruption.
On the sidelines of the Summit of the Americas in Lima, Peru, not long before, Minnis claimed that The Bahamas loses over $200 million annually due to corruption.
We still do not know what hat the prime minister pulled these figures from and he has been unable to provide a sensible explanation.
The corruption perception was certainly widespread ahead of the 2017 general election. Many voters voted against the PLP because they concluded the party endorsed corruption.
While there are several corruption-related cases of former public officials before the courts, no PLP has been convicted to date. We know, however, that perceptions are enough to change political fates. This is why PLPs have been banished to the political wilderness.
Interestingly, a 2017 corruption index published by Transparency International showed that The Bahamas was the top ranking country in the Caribbean for the least amount of perceived corruption.
The Bahamas came in at number 24 of 176 countries on the list, ahead of Barbados, which once topped the list for least corrupt country in the Caribbean basin.
Results of a nationwide poll conducted in The Bahamas by market and opinion research firm Public Domain showed that 54 percent of respondents believed the level of corruption increased in the country between October 2016 and October 2017.
Who will be the next chief justice
Over many weeks last year, the prime minister faced criticisms for dragging his feet in selecting a new chief justice. He was criticized by the Bar Association president and even by his own minister of state for legal affairs, Elsworth Johnson.
Minnis projected himself as a prime minister unbothered by the criticism.
For eight months (on and off), the late Stephen Isaacs served as acting chief justice.
After making an embarrassing gaffe when asked when he intended to address the issue, Minnis eventually appointed Isaacs as the substantive chief justice. Sadly, Isaacs died two weeks after he was sworn in.
Five months later, we are back at a point where the prime minister seems to have forgotten his constitutional obligation in this regard.
We ended 2018 the same way we started it — with no substantive chief justice in place.
During the opening of the legal year last week, Acting Chief Justice Vera Watkins raised the issue.
She said uncertainty over who will serve as chief justice has made it difficult for the judiciary to make long-term plans for the future.
“The indisputable fact is that while it may be so that I am sitting in this chair as acting chief justice at this moment, I am not certain as to whether I will be sitting in this chair later on today.
“I am not certain as to whether I will be sitting in this chair tomorrow morning,” Watkins said.
“As a result of the tenuous position in which I find myself, it may be a futile exercise to make any long-term plans for the judiciary. As the saying goes, I live or I work from day to day.”
The FNM once portrayed Prime Minister Perry Christie as a “late again” prime minister, but we cannot understand why the current prime minister seems so frequently to forget or drag his feet in fulfilling his responsibilities.
Perhaps Justice Watkins’ recent comments will serve as an important reminder to him that the time has once again passed for him to act.